As I See It: Terry Murden
CBI Scotland director Tracy Black’s call for MSPs to “stop playing games” and focus on growing the economy appears to have made little impression, even after the latest export data gave all sides an opportunity to share some positive news.
Exports rose 2.9% – a significant step forward for a country desperate to build its overseas sales – and food and drink by an impressive 7.1%.
But even as the country celebrates the poetry of Robert Burns there was no chance of MSPs enjoying a dram together. Instead, the export data was used as more ammunition in the internecine war over independence and whether the EU flag should continue to fly over Holyrood.
Ministers jumped on the export data to support their case for Scotland remaining in the EU and focused on how trade with the bloc was growing faster than trade with other markets – in other words, the rest of the UK (up 4.5% and 2.5% respectively).
Opposition parties took a contrary view, noting that rest of the UK still accounted for the bulk of sales (£51bn or 60%) against £16bn, or 19%, for the EU.
For the record, Scotland’s international trade to markets outside the EU continued to increase and now represents 21% of total trade, although the data is for 2018 and therefore precedes the year-long Brexit arguments and and the tariffs imposed on some products by US President Donald Trump last October.
These matters were barely mentioned as the debate focused on the UK and the EU, with both sides more interested in using the data to further their arguments on dividing Britain.
The Tories said the SNP’s obsession with independence risked causing “irreparable damage” to the economy while Labour took the opportunity to have a go at both the SNP and the Tories, accusing the UK government of being hell-bent on a hard Brexit that would damage Scotland’s exports.
What’s the point in these daily arguments and calls to action when the Tories in Westminster have given a firm refusal to hold a second referendum? With Boris Johnson in power, perhaps for 10 years, this simply can’t go on. It’s a futile and energy-sapping debate that soaks up time that could be spent on more immediate concerns: poor performance across a number of measures in education, health and crime.
While time is spent on gesture politics, the broader economy continues to grow more slowly than the rest of the UK, 0.6% over the year to September 2019, less than half the UK rate of 1.3%.
Confidence is said to be lower than the rest of the UK, falling 15 points during January to -4%, according to the latest Business Barometer from Bank of Scotland Commercial Banking.
The rest of the UK, by contrast, appears to be seeing a rise in confidence, a Boris bounce on the back of more clarity on Brexit and the prospect of tax cuts in the March Budget.
The usually tempered pleas from business for more action from Holyrood was replaced by an air of exasperation in Tracy Black’s comments earlier this week.
There should be plenty to cheer just now. Overseas investment into property is rising, more foreign tech firms are locating bases in Scotland, and angel investment is at a record high. Yet surveys keep telling us there is a lack of confidence.
One must wonder how much the independence debate is causing an unnecessary gloom to gather over Scotland.